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Gene Drives for Conservation

Gene drives could make cane toads non-toxic, enabling predators to consume the toads safely and reduce their numbers.

Gene drives could make cane toads non-toxic, enabling predators to consume the toads safely and reduce their numbers.

By Ella Kelly

Gene drives may provide a novel tool to counteract seemingly unstoppable threats to global biodiversity.

The global environment is changing so quickly that many species have been unable to cope. Australia’s biodiversity is being threatened by human-mediated impacts to the landscape, and as a result we now have almost 50 vertebrate species listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List. Although some species have begun adapting, often these adaptations have not spread rapidly enough through populations to prevent declines.

Habitat Highways Save Animals from Fire

Credit: Andrés Castañeda

A hazard reduction burn is carried out in mallee vegetation. This is often labelled as “ecological fire management” but hazard reduction and ecosystem management need different burning approaches to protect species. Credit: Andrés Castañeda

By Annabel Smith

Fire can act in a similar way to habitat fragmentation and restrict the movement of animals across the landscape.

Following the “Black Saturday” wildfires in 2009, the Victorian Government introduced a 5% annual controlled burning target to the entire public estate in Victoria. The South Australian Government followed suit, also adopting a 5% controlled burning target for public land at high risk.

However, there is growing consensus among the scientific community that these policies will neither protect lives and property nor conserve biodiversity. There is no scientific justification for the 5% target.

Remote Weapons: Ethics from a Distance

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper drone

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis down an Afghanistan runway. Credit: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

By Adam Henschke

Are military drones that launch lethal attacks by remote control of any more concern than traditional warfare capabilities?

Drones, lethal unmanned air vehicles and robots as part of modern warfare: these sound like the realm of fantasy, but we are facing a revolution in military technologies. Many interested in military ethics are concerned that these technological advances might present some important ethical risk, and so we should reject these sorts of remote weapons.

The Scent of a Crime

dog nose

Dogs can be used to detect a range of scents, including drugs, explosives, accelerants, currency, and living and deceased people. Credit: yellowsarah/iStock

By LaTara Rust & Rebecca Buis

Cadaver-detection dogs can’t be trained using human remains. How accurately can the complex scents emitted by decomposing bodies be mimicked when these dogs are trained?

Death can be a confronting topic for most people. Recent catastrophes such as the Malaysia Airlines plane crashes last year have made the fragility of human life abundantly clear, but the personal impacts of death can have lasting effects on the living.

Take a moment to imagine that someone close to you, a loved one, has gone missing. The fear of the unknown can be unbearable and many questions can cross your mind – have they become a victim of foul play? Are they trapped somewhere? Will they ever be seen again? And what were their last moments like?

Molecules that Mould the Mind

Credit: PhenomArtlover/iStockphoto

Credit: PhenomArtlover/iStockphoto

By Michael Notaras

Molecular psychiatrists are revealing how stress during critical periods in adolescence can influence mental illness later in life.

According to the 2013 report on Mental Health by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 45% of Australians will experience a mental disorder within their lifetime, of which 76% will do so before the age of 25. This early age of onset means that manifestations of illness can occur during adolescence, a critical period of development that comprises sexual maturation and ongoing changes in the brain.

The Doping Age

The Doping Age

By Stephen Moston & Terry Engelberg

A new study finds that doping in sport has spread to Australian athletes as young as 12 years of age.

For those of us who like to read our newspapers from the back pages first, the endless succession of stories of doping by elite athletes has almost lost the power to shock. The motives of elite athletes for doping are generally easy to understand: fame, fortune and sometimes an overwhelming desire to win. Nothing new there; move on to the next story.

The First Breath

Gogonasus

Gogonasus, the 380-million-year-old fossil sarcopterygian fish from Gogo in Western Australia, had large spiracles on its head to enable it to breathe air. Illustration: Brian Choo

By John Long

The African reedfish Polypterus has revealed how breathing first evolved in terrestrial animals, and perhaps how the structures of the ear first formed.

A 100-year-old controversy in science has recently been solved by a team of fish physiologists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego after careful observation of various species of African reedfishes (Polypterus) in controlled laboratory conditions. As a result, we now know more about how our ancient fish ancestors first began to breathe air and, perhaps surprisingly, how we developed our capacity to hear.

Jumping Genes and the Spectacular Evolution of Flowering Plants

Jumping Genes and the Spectacular Evolution of Flowering Plants

By Keith Oliver, Jen McComb & Wayne Greene

The emergence and rapid rise of flowering plants is one of the most extraordinary and yet still not fully explained phenomena in evolutionary history. Could what Darwin himself called an “abominable mystery” be caused by jumping genes?

Flowering plants are amazingly diverse organisms. At one extreme are species of duckweed that comprise single floating leaves just 1 mm in length. At the other extreme are giant banyan trees that may cover an area of more than a hectare and species of eucalypts standing more than 80 metres tall.

All told, there are at least 350,000 species of flowering plants distributed globally from the tropics to even the continent of Antarctica, where two species of grasses exist.

From the Mountain to the MCG

Harry O’Brien gasps with Nathan Buckley

Harry O’Brien gasps for breath in front of coach Nathan Buckley at the University of Utah, December 2012.

By Blake McLean

As the AFL season builds towards the Grand Final this month, Blake McLean outlines the performance enhancements Collingwood players gained by training at altitude last summer.

Altitude training has been used for decades by endurance athletes in an attempt to improve performance. In recent times this technique has been gaining popularity in professional team sports, perhaps most notably in the AFL. Before this season began no less than six AFL clubs participated in some sort of altitude training camp, and a number of clubs have now also installed simulated altitude, or hypoxic (low oxygen), rooms in an attempt to further enhance performance throughout the year.

Blake McLean travelled with the Collingwood Football Club for its altitude training camp in Utah as part of his PhD with the Australian Catholic University’s School of Exercise Science.

Radical Reasons Explain Why Smoking Harms Babies

Credit: freshidea

Credit: freshidea

By Brian Oliver & Hui Chen

New research has found why mothers who smoke or are exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke can cause permanent damage to the health of their babies.

One billion people smoke worldwide, and about 800 million of these smokers are men. Smoking is not just an addictive compulsion; it is also a cultural behaviour among men, especially in Asian cultures. In western society, however, smoking is popular among women, especially younger women.